Sermon
November 24, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 25:31-46


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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Sermon: Lord of the Harvest


In one of our Bible studies this week, the question was raised – “Do you have a clear picture of heaven?” Well, I have a very clear picture in my mind of heaven, and it looks an awful lot like the apartment where I grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, and it has all the smells of a typical family Thanksgiving meal from 25 years ago – which in our case began with Scotch sours and shrimp cocktails, had the usual main course, and ended with pumpkin pie and Schrafft’s thin mints. Later in the evening we’d eat crackers with a turkey topping dip made from the neck meat, mayonnaise, onions, and pickles. Now that’s a treat.

So I can see heaven, I can smell heaven, I can taste heaven.

Holiday traditions have a special place in our memories, and it is natural to think back and remember our family and friends who shared our love and laughter at those times but are no longer with us. Their absence is certainly felt at the holidays.

That’s why I think it is a good thing for us to have our Book of Remembrance observance at this Thanksgiving Holiday. In our litany we said that at the beginning of the year and at its end we remember them, but certainly the same could be said about gathering at the Thanksgiving table – we remember them, and we remember them with thanksgiving.

But I began to question my vision of heaven as some scene from the past when I thought that my children would not be included in this. The past may have been great, but I’ve had the privilege of seeing something new be born into this world, and it would be a terrible thing to be so attached to the past that you could never welcome the miracle of what is new, what is now, what is yet to be.

Is it worth the absence of the old to allow what is new to come into being? And if it is, why do we think that those who lived in the past, although gone for the moment, share a future with us – a time when we will meet again, and sit at the table again, and laugh and love and remember again?

We know that this vision of an after-life, of a future beyond death, is one of the most ancient of all religious beliefs. I suppose an archaeologist or an anthropologist could put a date to it, but I recall that graves up to 50,000 years old show evidence of rituals pointing to belief in continued existence after death.

The Bible speaks of an after-life, although the picture it gives is varied and has different emphases under different circumstances.

You might take teaching that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew as a picture of the after-life. It doesn’t necessarily say that it involves the fate of those who have gone before, but taken in the light of other teachings, that’s an easy inference to draw. But the lesson gives us a picture of the after-life as something that is deferred until some great day – a day of the Lord, a day when “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him.”

This is generally the picture of resurrection in the Bible – there is no immediate life after death, no migration of the soul from the body to a heavenly realm – but there is, in the future, a day when God will raise the dead from their graves – to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

For the Christian this has a slightly different connotation because we believe that those who are “in Christ” will be judged, not on their own merits, but on the merits of their Lord, and so will be saved. You could not draw that teaching out of the Gospel story we read this morning – which seemed to indicate that Jesus is indeed the gate keeper between heaven and hell, but that he shows little concern for religious profession and great concern for ethical and charitable behavior:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I don’t think you need me to elaborate on that lesson – we either hear it or we don’t – I’m not going to be able to make it any clearer than the master story teller did with that one.

But that is not the only picture we are given of the after-life. There is also a number of instances where the after-life is presented as an immediate reality of a soul separate from the body. This is different from resurrection in time and space, but is essentially the same in terms of reward and punishment. It seems, in the Gospel of Luke especially, to represent a reversal of fortune. Take the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

Luke 16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.



Now you might think that this is a parable, not to be taken literally, but this theme of reversal is echoed in the promise of immediate deliverance is given by Christ to the thief on the cross:

Luke 23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

No matter whether you take the Biblical image of immediate after-life or of after-life delayed to the day of resurrection, the picture is quite different from the modern scientific view, which might be best described as a return to nature and a diffused continuation through deeds, descendents, and remembrance.

The modern view finds sources in ancient philosophy. The idea that in death we return to nature and our elements dissolve and are re-absorbed in new life forms was expressed by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:

Every part of me will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe. and so on for ever. And by consequence of such a change I too exist, and those who begot me, and so on forever in the other direction. [Meditations, 5.13]

I suppose you could put the modern view in a Christian context and say the challenge is to die to self, to expand our identity beyond our single life and our limited span of years – and to identify with the larger life, the life we know existed before we were born and will exist after we die and say “I don’t have a life – life has me. It’s not the me that is important, it’s the life that uses me.”

I think there’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t grab me with the same passion as my vision of Scotch sours and turkey neck snacks.

Actually, there is an even more modern view of after-life, so modern that it won a prestigious award for new thinking in religion and science. John Polkinghorne was a particle physicist and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University. In 1982 he was ordained an Anglican priest, and in March of this year he won the $1 million Templeton Prize for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities for his book “The God of Hope and the End of the World.”

Polkinghorne believes that mind, body, and soul are all one package, and that to understand how they are related you need to look not at the parts but at the whole system. The “real me,” he writes, “is not the matter of my body” which is changing all the time. The “real me” is the pattern in which that matter is organized – that pattern is the soul.

Polkinghorne writes (the entire text of the article is attached below):

But, if the soul isn’t a detachable spiritual part of us, what hope do we have of a destiny beyond death? Won’t that wonderful pattern that is you or that is me be dissolved at our deaths – and that’s that? If this is how you think you have forgotten to take God into account. Our real hope that death is not the end depends on our belief in the trustworthiness of God. If we matter to God now – and we certainly do – we shall matter to God forever… Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths. It makes perfect sense to believe that God will remember the pattern that is you, or the pattern that is me, and re-create those patterns in the world to come. Christians call it resurrection. The true Christian hope has not been survival, but death followed by resurrection. Such a hope is as credible in the third millennium as it has been in the preceding two thousand years.

So this most modern view really believes in death, but because it knows how total death is, it is also the greatest affirmation of God’s grace when it declares a hope in life yet to come. Such a hope depends not on some supernatural quality we possess, but on the nature of God – a belief in a God who knows us now and will never forget us, a belief in a God who is faithful and who has the power to create and destroy and create again, a belief in a God who remembers.

Today, then, in our acts of remembrance we have a foretaste of resurrection. What do you remember of those who loved you, who gave you life, who gave you joy and happiness? Are those memories precious to you – do you hold them in your heart like a pearl of great price, like a hidden treasure? Do they infuse your life like yeast infuses a batch of dough being made ready for the oven? And if it is so with you, how much more so for God?

We remember, we give thanks, but we do not posses the power to recreate – I can never go back to that apartment in Queens and sit at that table again. But God is great; God can make all things new; God can fulfill the promise of life-everlasting. Let us live lives that give thanks to God; let us bless God with pleasing memories of who we are and how we have served one another to the glory of his holy name. Let us live so as to one day hear the voice that says:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’


More Than a Body?

By JOHN POLKINGHORNE


From God for the 21st Century, edited by Russell Stannard

Templeton Foundation Press, 2000


What am I? A smart tap on the head with a hammer will show that I'm dependent on my body. But am I just a body? Is there a spiritual bit of me, too? Have I got a soul?

For much of the past two thousand years, people thought of themselves as apprentice angels. The "real me" was a spiritual component, trapped in a body but awaiting release at death. At the start of the third millennium, that's an increasingly difficult belief to hold. Studies of brain damage and the effects of drugs show how dependent our personalities are on the state of our bodies. Charles Darwin has taught us that our ancestry is the same as that of other animals. Earth was once lifeless, and life seems to have emerged from complex chemical interactions. Many scientists think that we are nothing but collections of molecules.

Yet that's a pretty odd belief, too. Could mere chemicals write Shakespeare's plays or compose Handel's Messiah (or discover the laws of chemistry, for that matter)? There's something more to us than the merely material. But whatever that extra is, it is intimately connected with our bodies. We are a kind of package deal, mind and body closely related and not wholly detachable from each other. It's a puzzle to understand this. Oddly enough, the clue we need may be found in watching water being heated in a saucepan.

If the heat is applied gently, the water circulates from the bottom in a remarkable pattern. Instead of just flowing about any old how, it forms a pattern of six-sided cells, rather like in a beehive. This is an astonishing phenomenon. Trillions of molecules have to collaborate and move together in order to generate the pattern. The effect is a simple example of a new aspect of nature that scientists are just beginning to learn about. They call it complexity theory.

Physicists naturally started by studying the simplest systems available. They are the easiest to understand. Recently, the use of high-speed computers has extended our scientific range, and it is now possible to think about quite complicated situations. As this began to be explored, an unexpected realization dawned. Very often these complex systems turn out to have a quite simple overall behavior, ordered in some striking pattern-just like those trillions of molecules moving together in the saucepan.

The way physicists traditionally thought was in terms of the bits and pieces that make up a complex system. The exchanges of energy between these bits and pieces look extremely complicated. However, it turns out that if you think about the system as a whole, there can be these remarkably orderly patterns of behavior. In other words, there are two levels of description. One involves energy and bits and pieces. The other involves the whole system and pattern. At this second level, using computer-speak, we can say that what we need to think about is the information that specifies the pattern.

What has this got to do with the human soul? Whatever the soul may be, it is surely the "real me," linking that little boy of sixty years ago with the aging academic of today. That real me is certainly not the matter of my body. That is changing all the time, through eating and drinking, wear and tear. We have very few atoms in our bodies that were there five years ago. What provides the continuity is the almost infinitely complex pattern in which that matter is organized. That pattern is the soul, the real me.

So what do religious people make of that? Actually, they got there first! The Hebrews of Old Testament times never thought of human beings as apprentice angels. Instead, they took the package deal view that we are bodies full of life. The greatest thinker of medieval Christianity, St. Thomas Aquinas, thought the same. He was greatly influenced by the ideas of Aristotle. For Aristotle, the soul was the "form" (that is, pattern) of the body.

But, if the soul isn't a detachable spiritual part of us, what hope do we have of a destiny beyond death? Won't that wonderful pattern that is you or that is me be dissolved at our deaths-and that's that? If this is how you think, you have forgotten to take God into account. Our real hope that death is not the end depends on our belief in the trustworthiness of God. If we matter to God now -and we certainly do - we shall matter to God forever. We shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths. It makes perfect sense to believe that God, will remember the pattern that is you, or the pattern that is me, and re-create those patterns in the world to come. Christians call it resurrection. The true Christian hope has not been survival, but death followed by resurrection. Such a hope is as credible in the third millennium as it has been in the preceding two thousand years.

John Polkinghorne was formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University and president of Queens College, Cambridge. He is the only ordained Fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted in 1997. Among his books are The Way the World Is, Reason and Reality, and Science and Creation.
Amen.
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